Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Walk Along Lonely Street (but with a good book, which makes all the difference)

"READING: What’s your favorite lesser-known novel? Who are your favorite lesser known writers? In your genre and outside of it? Why? And have they influenced your work? How?"

Catriona writes: I'm at Bouchercon, in St Petersburg. But by lucky chance one of my favourite people on this little blue-green planet is on a blog tour to celebrate her new novel. Lillian Bell is a staunch friend, a terrific writer, and one of the very few who could make a funeral home adorable. 

Lillian, over to you!

Every once in a while, you read the exact right book at the exact right time in your life for it to have maximum impact. I’ve been lucky. It’s happened to me a few times. Most of the books have been pretty well-known, but one of them isn’t: Heartbreak Hotel by Gabrielle Burton.

I read Heartbreak Hotel at about the time it came out in 1986. It was on the New Book shelf at the library. I was a big library user, largely because I was super broke and couldn’t afford to buy books and I was also pretty unhappy and books were my escape from the unfortunate situation I’d managed to get myself into.

I picked the book because of the title. I’m a huge Elvis Presley fan. How could I pass up a book with that title, even though the cover copy made it absolutely clear that the book had nothing to do with the song?

It was a wild book. I’d never read anything like it and I haven’t read anything like it since. It was magical realism swirled with experimental fiction baked in a crust of feminist manifesto with sprinkles of dark humor scattered over the top. (Yes. I may be watching too much Great British Baking Show.)

In terms of plot, it followed seven women living in the Heartbreak Hotel in upstate New York. They’re all on rest leaves from the Museum of the Revolution, a museum about being a woman with exhibits like the Menstrual Show, a revue performed in redface. The museum is about to be closed down and one of the women is in a horrible motorcycle accident and is in a coma and somehow all the women are the same woman even though they’re different, except maybe they’re not. To me, it was about all the many facets of who we can be and how they don’t have to be mutually exclusive and maybe really can’t be mutually exclusive and how we’re all lost, but can help each other find our ways through because we’re all connected.

I was in my early twenties and really trying to figure out who I was supposed to be and how I was supposed to get to be that person. I felt like Burton had written Heartbreak Hotel personally to me, down to choosing a title that would catch my eye. After I read her book, I started taking steps that would eventually lead out of my unhappy situation.

Heartbreak Hotel won the Maxwell Perkins Prize for outstanding first novel. I figured Burton would have another one out in a year or two. That’s how those things work, right? I made sure to check for books by her nearly every time I went to the library.

None came.

Years went by. Eventually she wrote a screenplay for a movie directed by one of her daughters and starred in by another one of her daughters and a novel about the Donner Party. Burton died in 2015. I would have loved to meet her to tell her how much her book meant to me and how it was one of the things that gave me the courage to get myself out of that unhappy situation. I’ll always be a little sad that I didn’t manage to do that.

Is there a book that you’ve read just when you needed to read it? A book that spoke to you on some kind of soul level? Did you let the author know?

Lillian Bell lives and writes in northern California and feels very lucky to be doing what she does where she does it. She also writes as Eileen Rendahl, Eileen Carr, and Kristi Abbott. She is hoping to add one more pseudonym so she can be a basketball team all by herself. 

Find her


catriona said...

Welcome, Eileen! (It felt weird calling you Lillian.) This is a new one on me.

Lyda McPherson said...

Good Morning Eileen- Thank you for the post. Your blog sent me to the internet to search Gabrielle Brooks. Wow! Now I'm off to Amazon to check out your titles as well. Again, thank you.

Eileen said...

Hi, Catriona!
It's a new one for lots of people. I'm not sure I've met anyone else who's read it. And you can call me whatever you want. :-)

She's an amazing writer. I'd love to hear what you think of her book if you decide to read it. And thanks for looking for my books, too!


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks for stopping in, Eileen. It's wonderful when a book stays with you and has that kind of meaning in your life.

Eileen said...

Thanks, Dietrich. It was fun to share it with other people. It's been a while since I've tried to get anyone else to read it!